It’s been a theme all year -- it’s just fun to follow prospects again.
Any breakouts that happened in 2020 either occurred in the Majors -- leading to quick graduations -- or behind closed doors at alternate sites, instructional leagues or at-home workouts. In 2021, we are all witnesses.
Ahead of MLB Pipeline’s in-season update coming out next week, these are the prospects (with their pre-update rankings) who improved their stock the most this season and stand to surge in the new edition of the rankings, including one for every team:
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Orelvis Martinez, SS/3B (No. 4)
A $3.5 million signing from July 2018, Martinez was circled as one to watch ahead of his full-season debut this summer, but he got off to a slow start. Then, he demolished Low-A Southeast pitching in July to the tune of a .313/.420/.798 line and 13 homers in 26 games, leading to an Aug. 2 promotion to High-A Vancouver. The 19-year-old’s plus power potential has been solidified, and after opening behind (since-traded) Austin Martin and Jordan Groshans, he will be Toronto’s top shortstop prospect next week. (Gabriel Moreno is another candidate here, but he already slotted into the Top 100 after his stellar first half.)
Orioles: Kyle Stowers, OF (No. 22)
The No. 71 overall pick in the 2019 Draft, the Stanford product didn’t do all that much during his pro debut that summer, hitting .216 with a ton of strikeouts in short-season ball. His first full season this year has been an entirely different story. Yes, there are still swing-and-miss issues, but he’s hit 15 homers and slugged .491 while reaching Double-A and continuing to show his extra-base authority after the promotion.
Rays: Taj Bradley, RHP (No. 16)
The Rays player development train keeps on trucking, and the latest success story in a deep system has been the 2018 fifth-rounder in his first taste of full-season play. Bradley has cleaned up his delivery, leading to more strikes, and thrown more of a slider-cutter that is keeping hitters off-balance. He owned a 1.76 ERA with 81 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings at Low-A Charleston and has since been promoted to High-A Bowling Green.
Red Sox: Wilkelman Gonzalez, RHP (unranked on Red Sox Top 30)
Gonzalez had a mid-80s fastball when he signed out of Venezuela for $250,000 in 2018, and now that he's added about 35 pounds, he's dealing with a 92-96 mph heater and flashing a solid curveball and changeup. Making his U.S. debut this summer, he has posted a 41/7 K/BB ratio with a 3.90 ERA in 30 innings in the Rookie-level Florida Complex League.
Yankees: Ken Waldichuk, LHP (No. 21)
The Yankees thought Waldichuk was on the verge of a breakout this season, and they were correct. He opened the year with 30 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and leads the Minors in strikeout rate (14.4 per nine innings) while recording a 2.16 ERA, .170 opponent average and 127 whiffs in 79 1/3 frames between High-A and Double-A. A 2019 fifth-rounder from Saint Mary's, he has a mid-90s fastball and his curveball, slider and changeup all show flashes of becoming solid or better offerings.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Indians: Richard Palacios, 2B/OF (No. 27)
Palacios batted .361 and reached Low-A in his pro debut after the Indians made him a third-round pick out of Towson in 2018, but he missed all of the next season following labrum surgery on his shoulder. He has returned in 2021 to once again display the bat-on-ball skills, on-base ability and plus speed that could make him a quality leadoff man. He's hitting .289/.380/.464 with six homers and 14 steals in 76 games between Double-A and Triple-A.
Royals: MJ Melendez, C (No. 13)
One could make a case for Nick Pratto here, but even the Royals noted prior to the season that the first baseman was already showing improvement at last year’s alternate site. Melendez’s breakout seems much more confined to 2021, and what a breakout it is. The left-handed slugger was last seen hitting .163 at Class A Advanced Wilmington in 2019 and not only enters Thursday with a .284 average but also with 29 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A, second-most in the Minors. Kansas City believes Melendez’s raw power is as prodigious as anyone’s in the system, and he’s backed that up with improved pitch selection in his age-22 season.
Tigers: Reese Olson, RHP (No. 11)
Olson’s breakout didn’t technically happen in the Tigers' system. The 2018 13th-rounder took solid steps forward as a Brewers farmhand, striking out 79 in 69 innings at High-A Wisconsin, and he was traded straight up for Major Leaguer Daniel Norris at the Deadline. Olson shows three above-average pitches in his fastball, slider and changeup, and the only thing holding him back is a violent delivery that can lead to inconsistent control. That will be the Tigers’ issue to tackle now, and if they can get him to iron that out, an even bigger breakout could be in the cards for 2022.
Twins: Jose Miranda, INF (No. 19)
Any other team in baseball could have had Miranda in the Rule 5 Draft last December, but the Twins sure are glad no one took him. He’s always made a ton of contact, almost to his detriment, as he was too aggressive early in counts. More attention to pitch selection has paid dividends, as he’s been tapping into his power while reaching Triple-A, hitting a combined .338/.401/.584 with 22 homers in 2021. Think he’ll earn a 40-man spot this offseason?
White Sox: Jose Rodriguez, SS (No. 13)
Signed for $50,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2018, Rodriguez opened eyes by finishing sixth in the Rookie-level Arizona League with nine homers in 44 games during his U.S. debut a year later. He has continued to impress this season, batting .284/.327/.458 with 10 homers and 20 steals in 80 games in Low-A while getting the job done at shortstop.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Angels: Edgar Quero, C (unranked on Angels Top 30)
Quero is a Cuban catcher who signed with the Angels this past February with the delayed 2020-21 international signing period not starting until January, so forgive us for not having ranked him in the preseason. That will be rectified in the re-rank, as the 18-year-old has shown impressive skills on both sides of the ball during his pro debut here in the United States in the Arizona Complex League.
Astros: Jake Meyers, OF (unranked on Astros Top 30)
The Astros liked Meyers' speed and defense when they drafted him in the 13th round out of Nebraska in 2017, and his offense has proven a pleasant surprise after he improved his swing and strength. He batted .343/.408/.598 with 16 homers and 10 steals in 68 Triple-A games before Houston gave him his first big league callup on Aug. 1.
A’s: Jorge Juan, RHP (No. 29)
Juan was a replacement on the A’s list recently, and often those guys get bumped back off when we re-rank. That won’t be the case here as Juan’s arm strength coming from his 6-foot-8 frame is legit. His promotion to High-A has been a bit bumpy early, but he’s missed a ton of bats (13.5 K/9) with a fastball that touches 99 and a breaking ball that flashes plus.
Mariners: Matt Brash, RHP (No. 24)
While the Mariners got Brash, a 2019 fourth-round pick, from the Padres at last year’s Trade Deadline, they didn’t get to see him pitch because of the shutdown and a shoulder impingement that kept him from throwing at the club’s fall development program. He’s made up for lost time by reaching Double-A this season and dominating across two levels, striking out 13 per nine and holding hitters to a combined .197 batting average against.
Rangers: Dustin Harris, 1B/3B (unranked on Rangers Top 30)
The A's signed Harris for an over-slot $250,000 in the 11th round out of St. Petersburg (Fla.) JC in 2019, then shipped him to the Rangers last year as part of a trade for Mike Minor. He has batted .316/.392/.507 with 12 homers and 22 steals in 80 games between Low-A and High-A this year in his first taste of full-season ball, and he shows enough athleticism to be able to play any of the four corner positions.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Spencer Strider, RHP (No. 19)
It seems that the velocity gains Strider showed in his shortened season at Clemson in 2020 and then at instructs after the Braves took him in the fourth round of the ’20 Draft are very much for real. He has big stuff, with a fastball that touches 99 mph and very good secondary stuff that has allowed him to pitch across three levels this year, striking out 15.4/9 while hitters have managed just a .187 batting average against him.
Marlins: Jake Eder, LHP (No. 21)
Eder flashed first-round stuff but lacked consistency at Vanderbilt, which is why he lasted until the fourth round of the 2020 Draft. He's commanding his pitches better than ever and has used his mid-90s fastball, plus curveball and improved changeup to compile a 1.86 ERA, .173 opponent average and 95/25 K/BB ratio in 67 2/3 innings while heading directly to Double-A for his pro debut.
Mets: Carlos Cortes, OF (No. 16)
The New York system is certainly top-heavy, and its Big Three of Francisco Álvarez, Brett Baty and Ronny Mauricio have performed to expectations or even exceeded them slightly. But there are some breakouts to be found a little lower, including that of Cortes. The former South Carolina star has already hit a career-high 13 homers for Double-A Binghamton, and his .517 slugging percentage is a vast improvement over his .397 mark from 2019. The Mets were believers in the left-handed slugger’s bat, but he needed to prove it could play at the upper levels, especially if he was taking to the outfield full time. So far, so good.
Nationals: Andry Lara, RHP (No. 7)
With the infusion of prospect talent that came over at the Trade Deadline, it could have been easy for the Minor Leaguers already in the system to get lost in the shuffle. That hasn’t been the case for Lara, who, if anything, has solidified his spot as one of the pipeline’s best pitching prospects. The 18-year-old right-hander is touching the upper-90s now and throwing more strikes than he did at last year’s instructs. Despite a rough 5.76 ERA, his 40 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings speak much more to his 2021 abilities in the Florida Complex League.
Phillies: Cristian Hernandez, RHP (No. 29)
A midseason addition, Hernandez has made a very impressive leap while making his full-season debut in 2021. Signed in July 2017, Hernandez threw well in the Dominican Summer League in 2018, but he missed 2019 because of injury, so this season was the first time in many the Phillies got to see what he could do. He’d be near the top of the ERA leaders in his league if he had enough innings, and he’s struck out 11.75 per nine.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Joe Gray Jr., OF (No. 30)
Milwaukee has been elated to see how the 2018 second-rounder has taken off offensively in what is ostensibly his first full season. Gray’s speed, outfield arm and power potential always made him a prospect, but it was an open question whether he would hit enough. He seems to have found a good blend of power and flexibility at the plate, leading to more impactful contact. He is hitting .272/.380/.561 with 16 homers and 16 steals over 80 games at Low-A and High-A.
Cardinals: Nick Plummer, OF (No. 29)
The Cards grabbed Plummer with the 25th overall pick in 2015, only to see him falter at the A-ball levels and fail to produce an OPS above .688 in his first three full seasons. Now at Double-A at age 25, the outfielder is showing a much better approach and ability to tap into his power. He owns a .296/.400/.486 line with 11 homers in 80 games for Springfield.
Cubs: D.J. Herz, LHP (No. 30)
A North Carolina high school product, Herz slipped to the eighth round of the 2019 Draft amid signability questions and now looks like a steal at $500,000. He's holding the velocity on a 92-95 mph fastball, throwing some nasty low-80s sliders and displaying an improved changeup. He has a 3.78 ERA with a .159 opponent average and 84 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings in Low-A.
Pirates: Roansy Contreras, RHP (No. 20)
While a forearm strain slowed the bus down a bit, there’s no question Contreras has been better than advertised since coming from the Yankees in the offseason Jameson Taillon trade. His stuff, which had always been solid, took a step forward with a jump to Double-A -- he had pitched in Low-A ball in 2019 with the Yankees -- allowing him to post a 2.35 ERA and .186 BAA, to go along with a 12.7 K/9 (vs. just 2.2 BB/9) over nine starts with Altoona
Reds: Elly De La Cruz, 3B/SS (No. 18)
De La Cruz didn’t get added to the Top 30 until the Reds sent a pair of prospects to the Rockies for Mychal Givens, but he was making such a huge first impression in full-season ball, we had to put him up pretty high. Expect another jump. The infielder didn’t get to Daytona until mid-July, but between his numbers in the Arizona Complex League (his U.S. debut) and after his promotion, he’s hit a combined .331/.370/.676 in 32 games.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: Ryne Nelson, RHP (No. 18)
A second-round pick in 2019, Nelson could always chuck it with a 70-grade fastball that could touch triple digits on occasion. Add in a good curveball, and the 23-year-old right-hander has had no issue missing bats in 2021 with 112 strikeouts (ninth-most in the Minors) over 75 1/3 innings at High-A and Double-A. Nelson still lacks even average control (11.2 percent walk rate), but with this level of swing-and-miss stuff, his road to the Majors is even clearer these days.
Dodgers: Andre Jackson, RHP (No. 22)
Jackson had more success as an outfielder than on the mound in college at Utah before having Tommy John surgery in 2017, but the Dodgers still took him as a pitcher in the 12th round that June and signed him for an over-slot $247,500. His athleticism has translated into a mid-90s fastball with late life and an advanced changeup, and he's working on his feel for spinning the ball. He sports a 3.28 ERA, .198 opponent average and an 81/22 K/BB ratio in 71 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.
Giants: Sammy Long, LHP (unranked on Giants Top 30)
A 2016 18th-round pick out of Sacramento State released by the Rays two years later, Long spent a year out of baseball and two in the White Sox system before signing with the Giants as a Minor League free agent last November. His solid curveball and changeup help his low-90s fastball play up, a formula that has led to a 1.65 ERA, .167 opponent average and 45/9 K/BB ratio in 27 1/3 innings between three Minor League stops. He also has made seven appearances with a 5.81 ERA with the Giants despite dealing with a back strain.
Padres: Ethan Elliott, LHP (No. 10)
The San Diego system isn’t as deep as it once was, making it all the easier for impressive performers like Elliott to stand out in the ranks. The 2019 10th-rounder won’t get anyone excited with his velocity right around the 90 mph mark, but he really sells his low-80s changeup to the point where it’s a plus pitch. Combine that with an ability to hit his spots with all three of his pitches, and Elliott has already climbed to Double-A and owns a 3.06 ERA with 87 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 70 2/3 innings across two levels.
Rockies: Warming Bernabel, 3B (unranked on the Rockies Top 30)
While Bernabel played decently during his pro debut in the Dominican Summer League in 2019, he certainly didn’t catch anyone’s attention, but he certainly has done that in 2021. He made quick work of the Arizona Complex League and earned a jump to full-season Fresno as a 19-year old. Combined, the third baseman has a .365/.395/.625 line over his first 29 games in the United States.